Strengthening the Shoulders
The shoulders, being the most mobile joint in the body with a ball-and-socket joint, are less stable than the hips. Many people experience a “frozen shoulder” or pain in lifting the arm overhead due to repetitive movement or a sports injury. This is often due to inflammation in the rotator cuff tendons.
The rotator cuff is a group of four tendons (attaching muscle to bone) around the shoulder joint, allowing the ball-and-socket motions of up, down, side-to-side, and rotation. It is the ball-and-socket joint, combined with the rotator cuff tendons, that allow us to swim, play tennis, dance, and to perform even more complex movements that seem commonplace to us.
However, if you have ever experienced a shoulder injury, you know that the commonplace can quickly become extremely—and sometimes mysteriously—painful.
The immediate solution for shoulder pain is icing and resting. But what do you do next to heal the shoulder for good and prevent further injury?
The good news is that many shoulder-pain issues can be solved at home with simple exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff and allow for increased endurance. However, if you know you are going to do an unusual repetitive movement, such as lifting boxes or stirring risotto for a sustained period of time, be sure to switch arms frequently while you work, and make sure to stretch during and after.
While some shoulder-stressing sports, such as tennis, do not allow for switching sides, the load of a nonathletic move, even carrying a heavy purse, can be mitigated by switching hands frequently.
Here are some exercises that will strengthen the rotator cuff and help you to perform better in everyday life, avoiding lifestyle-related shoulder injury. Perform each exercise slowly and with control.
Planks or Pushups at Varying Widths
It is strengthening for your rotator cuff to experience some variety in directional tension. While you are holding a plank or doing pushups, allow your arms to reach out wider than your body (instead of being stacked directly beneath the shoulders). Doing so increases the challenge of the position, but also trains the “reaching” muscles of the back that are responsible for supporting the entire shoulder structure.
I recommend that the plank be held for 20–30 seconds (or roughly 10 breaths) for three sets. If you are doing pushups, make sure that you can see yourself in a mirror or have a friend watch you. It is extremely important that your body remain in a completely straight line during pushups and that you do not exceed the number of repetitions that you can do with good form.
Using either handheld dumbbells or a resistance band in each hand, lean forward slightly and then pull up and back, keeping your back in alignment and your elbows close to your body. Do 12 repetitions for three sets. The resistance level for rows should be rather challenging. Try to pick a weight or band tightness that does not allow you to do more than 12 repetitions.
Switch weights or bands to a lighter level of resistance. In a position very similar to the one you held for rows (feet together, hinged at the waist), bring your arms (hands together) slightly in front of you, and then open your arms wide on either side. Return to center. That’s one repetition. Perform 12 repetitions for three sets.
This exercise can be done with a very tight resistance band, a heavy single dumbbell, or a kettlebell. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and grasp your weight in both hands, allowing the weight to hang heavy in your hands with your arms straight.
Then, pull up on the weight so that it moves upward in space but remains at the midline of the body. Pull it up to chest height, and then slowly lower it back down. Perform 12 repetitions for three sets.
Rachel Trotta, certified personal trainer (NASM), is the author of “Injury-Proof: 28 Days to Better Movement, Smarter Training, and an Invincible Core” and the owner of Zenith Personal Training. Her unique modality provides effective cross-training for runners, dancers, and other high-impact athletes, but also appeals to new exercisers who want to reach their fitness potential. To read more, visit PersonalTrainingUWS.com
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